Backtracking: Tomb Raider (1996)

Backtracking is a blogging project that I’m embarking on in 2024 in which I will play one game from each year since I was born. My goal is to engage with games I’ve never played and divert some of my attention away from new releases and towards older titles. I hope to cross off some major backlog items, learn more about the influences and intertexts that informed the games I grew up with, and practice my analytical skills. I’m using US release dates as the relevant year for my selections.

Why I Chose This Game

When I was growing up, my dad played PC games. Mostly, they were shooters and action games that I was too young for. We hardly ever played video games together, maybe because of differences in taste. Instead, as I got older, he shared his favorite games by handing them down to me: Half-Life, Halo, Far Cry, F.E.A.R., and many more made their way to my computer once he had finished them, often with me barely old enough to start engaging with them.

The first of these "grown-up" games that I clearly remember playing was Tomb Raider III. Though technically just as violent and scary as the rest of his collection, it became a different object my hands. I spent hours running around in Lara Croft's extravagant mansion, an introductory level partitioned off from the main game. Tomb Raider III's Croft Manor features a gym in which Lara explains her idiosyncratic maneuvering, a secret relic room locked by hidden and timed switches, and a obstacle course with a time trial scoring component. It was a little collection of puzzles, challenges, and tutorials, a vertical slice of the game without the dire stakes.

As a child, my occasional forays into the proper game were too harrowing. I was unprepared, or perhaps uninterested, in the rows of vicious spikes positioned halfway down a slope, the tigers prowling the jungle underbrush, the murky swamp that drowns Lara before she can reach its far shore.

The title screen of Tomb Raider, with a 3D passport icon centered

1996's Tomb Raider features only the barest iteration of Croft Manor, a simple tutorial that ends abruptly with a level completion screen and leads directly into the main game. There's little to explore, and no invitation to do so. Lara has an adventure to get on with, and it's finally time for me to brave the labyrinths and all the beasts and traps they contain.

What I Thought

Tomb Raider is widely understood to be an obtuse game, with an awkward control scheme that exemplifies the early stumblings of the 3rd-person action and platformer eras. Lara uses "tank controls", meaning that she can move forward and backwards, but only pivot to the left to right; the direction she faces is always the direction she'll move. To augment this, she can perform acrobatic jumps forward, backwards and sideways, as well as a quick roll to reverse her direction on the ground. The camera can only be moved manually when standing still and holding down a "look" button; otherwise, it follows behind her and swings around in front if she backs up to a wall.

Layered on top of this basic locomotion are additional maneuvers for running jumps, ledge grabs and shimmies, and swimming. Collected together, they form a sort of tactical platforming toolkit, in which navigating the level geometry is about careful planning, precision execution, and occasional quick reactions.

With a bit of practice, this all begins to make a degree of sense. Lara's clunky movement comes into focus as an experiential choice rather than a poorly-implemented control scheme. She bonks into things to stop her momentum, pivots in tiny increments to line up jumps, and pushes blocks around with excruciating effort. All of these actions are animated expressively, giving a surprising amount of life to Lara's lanky and exaggerated character model. The result is an inversion of idealized "fluid" platforming; it's awkward, cautious, and slow, moving in fits and starts, often one missed jump away from a bone-breaking fall or a grisly spike pit.

Lara looks around a large cistern from a high ledge

The levels themselves become increasingly elaborate, demanding a startling degree of scrutiny. I occasionally looked to a walkthrough to point me to carefully concealed switches or underwater passageways that were critical to progressing. Though sometimes too clever for its own good, this level design is remarkably varied, vertical, and dense with secrets. If the platforming can be said to convey a treacherous trek through crumbling ruins, the level design accomplishes the same with the hunt for deviously hidden secrets.

The game leans more heavily on its thin combat elements than it truly ought to. Ferocious creatures that are terrifying at first become a tedious barrage of annoying bullet sponges. Some of the rare encounters with human enemies manage to stand out: clumsy gunfights amidst ancient pillars that turn into bizarre games of hide and seek. The infrequency of these setpiece fights works in their favor, especially given that the game goes on a bit too long in general.

I have either too much or very little to say about the infamous character design and concept that is Lara Croft, but "very little" fits better in this blog post. Tomb Raider's plot follows an action-adventure formula with a sprinkling of spy thriller flair. Its goofy sci-fi escalations occasionally generate a noteworthy unsettling moment, but ultimately they leave it feeling like a mediocre movie plot, complete with all the well-trodden tropes of indigenous erasure that you'd expect. Perhaps the only hint of commentary is the decision to call the game "Tomb Raider", a title that seems pretty bald-faced in retrospect, and which the 2010s reboots would feebly attempt to complicate.

Ultimately, Tomb Raider's misogynist character design and racist story tropes cast a longer shadow than its gameplay ideas. I found it interesting as an oddball action platformer that marks a strange moment in early 3D action game design. I can pretty confidently say that I've played very few modern games that feel anything like Tomb Raider, and given the enduring popularity of the series, that's kind of remarkable.

Lara leaps through the air in a large stone room


I played Tomb Raider with a controller, which helped cement the intentions of the unconventional controls. The version I played also allows saving the game anywhere at all, rather than at specified save points, which was immensely useful. It's hard to overstate how crucial these details were to my ability to be patient with it, and I'd recommend that others play it the same way if possible.

More than any other game, playing Tomb Raider reminded me a bit of Sephonie, a 3D platformer from 2022. Sephonie's seemingly-clumsy movement system begins to feel much more usable, intentional, and consistent after some acclimation. Once it started to click, it made the game feel unique and interesting. It bolstered Sephonie's other ideas in ways that more conventional platforming may not have.

Games with strange controls and locomotion typically don't make those decisions without reason. In the case of Tomb Raider, it communicated the precarity and precision of movement in hostile and ancient environments, and it managed to generate a surprisingly interesting variety of puzzles and obstacles. It's easy to dismiss it as poorly aged or even altogether bad, but I don't think much can be gained from that critical lens.

Best-selling classics with enormous multimedia franchises don't necessarily deserve this kind of generosity, but today's bounty of indie titles from around the world certainly might. There's a lot of value in letting games push against our familiarities and preferences rather than expecting them to conform to particular standard. Previous titles in my Backtracking series had me questioning my ability to adapt to their controls and challenge, but Tomb Raider has been a nice reminder that older games don't always demand adaptability; sometimes they just need a little patience and grace to see what's interesting about them.